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Thai premier declares emergency in capital

Overnight violence heightens national crisis that started a week ago when opponents of Samak occupied the grounds of his office and refused to move until he resigned.

thailand prime minister samak 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
thailand prime minister samak 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Thailand's prime minister declared an emergency Tuesday in Bangkok, calling it the "softest means available" for restoring order after overnight clashes between government opponents and supporters left one person dead and 43 injured. Under the sweeping powers that give the military the right to restore order, all public gatherings of more than five people are banned and the media is barred from reporting news that "causes panic." Samak gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over "moderately quickly." "I did it to solve the problems of the country," Samak said in a televised news conference at a military headquarters in Bangkok. "Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice." The overnight violence heightened a national crisis that started a week ago when opponents of Samak occupied the grounds of his office and refused to move until he resigned. Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government. The Election Commission recommended that his People's Power Party be disbanded for electoral fraud committed during December elections. The commission forwarded its findings to the Attorney General's Office to decide whether to submit the case to the Constitutional Court for a final ruling. Samak and other top party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld. Calm returned to Bangkok's streets by morning, after Samak deployed troops with riot gear - but no guns - to disperse the two groups of protesters. Both sides retreated to their respective protest sites, about 1 kilometer apart, keeping the area a flashpoint for further trouble. Two dozen police vans and ambulances were parked down the street from Samak's office compound, known as Government House. As a precaution, City Hall announced that 435 Bangkok public schools would close for three days. Some international private schools opted to shut for a week. South Korea and Singapore, among other countries, issued travel advisories urging citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Thailand. A week of political tension exploded into street clashes early Tuesday between protesters seeking to topple Samak and mobs of his supporters. About 500 Samak supporters marched through the streets after midnight vowing to retake Government House. Gangs armed with sticks, knives, slingshots and other makeshift weapons chased each other up and down boulevards, beating anyone they could catch. Reporters saw at least one man aiming and firing a pistol at a group of people. The mob scuffled with police about halfway to the Government House complex, then clashed with alliance members with most of the fighting taking place near the Asian headquarters of the United Nations. "We were armed with nothing but shields so there was only so much we could do," Bangkok police chief Gen. Jongrak Jutanond said. Inside Government House, one of the protest leaders Chamlong Srimuang, remained defiant. "We will stay and fight!" he told protesters. "Stay calm. Don't fear... Can you be brave a little longer to save our country?" Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda said anti-riot troops were armed only with batons and shields in efforts to avoid further violence. The emergency allows the use of military forces in policing activities, and suspends certain civil liberties. Security forces can block roads and deny citizens entry to public areas and detain people without charge for 30 days with court approval. One person, identified as a 55-year-old man, died from severe head injuries and nine others were hospitalized, at least three with gunshot wounds, the Health Ministry said in a statement. Another 33 people were treated for injuries and sent home. The identities of the victims were not immediately clear. The People's Alliance for Democracy accuses Samak's government of corruption and of serving as a proxy for ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin recently fled to Britain to escape an array of corruption charges. On Monday, the alliance had announced that their supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a "general strike" set for Wednesday. Alliance supporters already are disrupting rail service. Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling a new election. Since beginning its occupation of the Government House compound, the People's Alliance has tried to block streets in the capital with as many as 30,000 supporters, according to an early government estimate.